A NATHAN Arnold double gave Grimsby Town a priceless advantage after the first leg of their play-off semi-final against Eastleigh.
After kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes because of traffic problems near the Silverlake Stadium, the Mariners made a flying start and were ahead within three minutes as Arnold struck with a dipping shot from the edge of the box.
Town should have been further in front as Shaun Pearson and Ollie Palmer both missed good chances either side of the goal.
And it looked like they had been made to pay as substitute Yemi Odubade equalised after half-time.
But Grimsby – and Arnold – had other ideas, and his second of the night meant they go into Sunday’s second leg at Blundell Park with a one-goal lead.
Five changes were made to the Town side that beat Aldershot in their last league game on Saturday.
Pearson, Carl Magnay, Arnold, Lenell John-Lewis and Ollie Palmer were all back in the XI, with Paul Bignot, Daniel Parslow, Jordan Chapell, Ross Hannah and Jon-Paul Pittman all making way.
James McKeown started in goal, with Toto Nsiala moving across to right-back as Pearson partnered Josh Gowling in the centre of defence and Magnay lined up on the left.
Jack Mackreth, Craig Disley, Scott Brown and Arnold were the midfielders, with John-Lewis and Palmer linking up in attack.
The Grimsby substitutes were Hannah, Craig Clay, Pittman, Parslow and Chapell.
Eastleigh included former Crawley attacker Craig McAllister alongside James Constable while former Town loanee Harry Pell and ex-Scunthorpe striker Deon Burton both started on the bench.
Palmer won an early free kick and after Brown’s ball came back to him, there was a great chance for Pearson to open the scoring but he put his header over the bar as the offside flag stayed down.
But the celebrations were not delayed for long, as the Mariners took the lead within three minutes. A long kick downfield by McKeown was headed down by defender Jamie Turley and ARNOLD unleashed a brilliant dipping shot from 20 yards that beat home keeper Ross Flitney.
The winger could have made it 2-0 when he took advantage of a slip in the Eastleigh defence to go through on goal but his shot was well saved by Flitney.
Town had started brilliantly and they should have been on the scoresheet again on eight minutes. Another defensive mistake led to the ball coming loose inside the Eastleigh box and after John-Lewis touched it on to Palmer, he only had to finish from eight yards but instead, hit the post.
Eastleigh were yet to make any impression at the quarter-hour as the Mariners seemed to have coped better with the delayed kick-off.
Constable had their first shot of the game on 20 minutes but he dragged it well wide of McKeown’s goal, with the keeper untroubled.
By this point, the hosts were starting to come into the game and they won a corner on the left that was headed clear at the far post before Jack Midson could get to it.
At the other end, Arnold fizzed a ball across the box after John-Lewis had chased it down towards the corner flag but nobody in black and white was there to convert the cross.
Disley had to make a good challenge after a clever flick set Constable through down the middle but the skipper did well to ensure the ball went through to McKeown.
The game’s first flashpoint then came as McKeown looked to kick the ball clear but found his path blocked by Jai Reason. The keeper eventually lost his cool and shoved the striker over but referee Simon Bennett stepped in and eventually gave the ball back to McKeown.
Ben Strevens was shown the first yellow card of the evening on 35 minutes after leading with his arm and catching Disley in an aerial challenge.
McKeown failed to claim a high cross from the right three minutes later but Gowling was in the right place to hook the ball clear.
Constable then had a chance when the ball came to him inside the box but he could only prod it wide, with McKeown again not called into action.
A foul on Midson by Pearson gave Eastleigh a free kick on the right but Reason’s ball to the far post was headed out for a throw-in by Pearson.
The home pressure continued though, and Pearson had to do some more defending to head over his own bar after a cross from Reason. McKeown failed to deal with the ball from the flag but after it fell for Joe Partington, his shot was blocked by Gowling.
Two added minutes were signalled at the end of the half and a long throw from Nsiala fell for Brown but he could not get enough contact on his shot to worry the home defence.
Midson hit a snap-shot from 18 yards at the other end but it lacked the power needed to beat McKeown, who got down to make the stop.
That was the last action of the first half, meaning Grimsby’s one-goal advantage remained in place at the interval.
No changes were made before the restart and Midson had the first opportunity of the second half but floated his shot through to McKeown from 20 yards.
Neither side made much of an impact in the opposition half in what was a quiet opening to the half.
A foul on Arnold gave Town a free kick just inside the Eastleigh half on 58 minutes and Magnay’s ball into the box was headed on by John-Lewis towards Disley but the referee spotted a handball by the skipper and gave a free kick to the hosts.
Yemi Odubade replaced Midson just before the hour as home boss Richard Hill made the first substitution of the game.
Magnay was booked for a poor challenge on the substitute which gave Eastleigh a free kick in a dangerous position, 25 yards out and in a central area. From it, the home side were level, as Reason’s clipped ball to the far post was headed back across his own goal by Nsiala for ODUBADE to tap in from close range.
Town’s response was swift and Arnold won a corner when his 25-yard shot was deflected behind. It soon turned into a second flag-kick as Arnold’s ball was headed behind by Partington and this time, the ball eventually came to Disley, who headed just wide.
Odubade was booked for a late challenge on Magnay, before Craig Stanley’s shot was blocked by Pearson for an Eastleigh corner, which was also headed clear by the centre-back.
Eastleigh were on top at this stage but when the next goal came, it went against the run of play and gave the Mariners their lead back. Again, it was a long kick forward by McKeown and after John-Lewis won the ball and gave it to ARNOLD, he cut inside before smashing a shot past Flitney and into the far corner.
Town made a double substitution on 75 minutes, sending on Pittman and Clay in place of Palmer and Brown.
Eastleigh responded by introducing the experienced Brian Howard in place of Stanley three minutes later.
Clay looked to place a shot from 20 yards but saw it deflected out for a corner, which the visitors could not turn into a goalscoring opportunity.
At the other end, Odubade created another chance for himself but his shot from the edge of the box deflected off Pearson for a corner.
Pittman was penalised for a foul near his own corner flag on 84 minutes but Reason’s free kick was headed away by Nsiala.
The danger continued though, as Howard was fouled seconds later by Arnold, who was booked. Howard’s shot from it hit the Town wall.
John-Lewis had an opportunity to make it 3-1 with three minutes to go after collecting a ball which had been played over the top but although his first-time shot was on-target, keeper Flitney produced an excellent save to ensure the only damage was a corner.
Five added minutes were signalled and an Eastleigh penalty shout came when Reason went down, although the referee waved play on and replays later showed the challenge to be a fair one and outside the box.
A late corner gave the hosts a final chance to get themselves level but they could not take it and Town’s lead remained intact.
The two teams meet again at Blundell Park on Sunday, with a Wembley appearance in the final being the reward for the winners.